In a recent Bollywood movie 'Kesari', which commemorates the Battle of Saragarhi, fought on September 12, 1897 between the British Indian Army and Afghan tribesmen, the protagonist, a soldier in the Sikh battalion, puts India’s unwitting role in the global context of the “Great Game”.
The British Indian Empire representing the Queen, he says, wanted to keep the Russian Emperor away from this all-important region. When asked by a fellow Indian soldier, “but why are we here?” the protagonist, Ishar Singh, who died fighting the Afghans in that battle, says: “We are the 'baraatis' (groom's party), needed to dance the bhangra, nothing else.”
If India’s role then was of marriage party revellers, is it different now? The global context has changed. No longer just British versus Russians, it has many more players. The British never conquered the Afghans. The Russians came, could not conquer and left and, now, the Americans want to leave Afghanistan to their fate after 17 years.
India, a truncated part of the erstwhile British-ruled territory, is separated from Afghanistan by an antagonistic Pakistan. A part of Pakistan-controlled territory that India claims in Jammu and Kashmir is ceded to China. Not just that, China has laid through that disputed territory and beyond a massive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to reach the Indian Ocean – something the Russians, both imperial and communist, could not achieve. And because of that, India, unlike scores of other nations, does not join the Belt and Road Initiative, of which the CPEC is a critical part.
Afghanistan is not just that much-coveted “heart of Asia;” it is intrinsically linked to the larger Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Further, with Islamic State (IS) fighters spilling over from West Asia (Syria, Iraq), this region, straddling West and South Asia, needs closer attention. It can be called West-South-West Asia, one of the world’s major trouble spots, with an unresolved conflict.
The United States wants to withdraw from Afghanistan and end its longest and most expensive military conflict overseas. It is hurtling in that direction, despite enormous complexities and roadblocks – to keep the widely perceived deadline of the third quarter of 2020, in time for President Donald Trump’s bid for re-election. He wants to fulfil a commitment his predecessor Barack Obama could not meet and, ostensibly, make “bringing the boys back home” his re-election plank.
As Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s special envoy for this region, conducts talks for a negotiated withdrawal, with the Afghan Taliban among others, most players are also readying to deal with the long-despised group. This marks a significant geopolitical shift for which India seems ill-prepared. Its earlier allies, among them Russia, Iran and the Central Asian Republics, have felt compelled by the IS threat to change sides and view the Taliban differently.
As Taliban are engaged, Pakistan that hosts them has become a key player. It is more so because the US needs access through Pakistan to be able to evacuate. Trump’s blow-hot-blow-cold administration is engaging Islamabad and the latter, in measured moves, is facilitating the dual access, one through its territory and the other, to the Taliban leadership operating from its territory.
Controlling vast stretches of Afghan territory, estimated at over of 40 percent, having considerable firepower, Taliban are attacking the Afghan security forces at will. The US is readying to withdraw if it gets ‘verifiable’ assurances from the group. The Taliban have so far assured that they would not attack American/NATO interests. But they want the US to leave fully and completely. The latter does not seem sure, so far, whether it can really ‘verify’ Taliban assurances.
Washington is in a quandary. Leaving this region means a complete loss of face for the US, setting a bad global precedent; whereas staying on means draining blood and dollars. In geopolitical terms, the US retreat means the Chinese filling in the vacuum. Simultaneously, decline in the US presence in the region, with a deteriorating relationship with Pakistan that is getting increasingly closer to China, doing the latter’s bid, means allowing space for the development of a Turkey-Pakistan-China-Russia quad that can harm US interests in the region from a long term perspective. It can also sharpen the conflict between Saudi Arabia, its ally in the region, and Iran, an adversary.
Despite Trump’s resolve, however, it would naïve to think that the US would quit so easily a virgin land of copper and several yet-to-be-explored minerals. They are needed for American industry, especially the defence industry that must sell arms and keep the Afghan pot, like trouble spots elsewhere, boiling.
Yet, since US presence in Afghanistan cannot be permanent and it must quit someday, there seems no ‘end’ to this ‘Game’. Will history repeat itself? Will the international community again abandon a war-ravaged Afghanistan like it did three decades ago after the Soviets withdrew, paving the way for the Taliban, then 9/11 and then the IS?
What is there for India? It has gained and lost presence in Afghanistan since the days of the Mughals and Maharajah Ranjit Singh, as the British colony and an ally of the Soviets. It went virtually friendless with each change.
India was an untouchable in Afghanistan after the Soviet-propped Najibullah was removed. It could barely find its feet when his successors in Kabul began to destroy each other. It was clearly hated by the Taliban who seized Kabul, enough to be bullied when Indian passenger aircraft was hijacked to Kandahar in 1999.
India regained friendly status and has contributed to Afghanistan’s rebuilding only since 2002. Successive Indian governments have had excellent ties with both former president Hamid Karzai and President Ashraf Ghani. Its development projects in Afghanistan have touched lives of ordinary Afghans and made India extremely popular. India has maintained supply lines using the Iran corridor and airlifting its exports. These exports are expected to double in the next year because of the new marine trans-shipment route, according to Ghani.
Now, however, since India has strategic ties with Washington, the US exit could again render it ‘friendless’. This is a grim prospect in a more complex geopolitical environment, having spent a whopping three billion dollars and invested in goodwill among the Afghans. India needs to work carefully with old allies – Russia, Iran and the Central Asian Republics. And with China, which last year agreed to launch a joint project in Afghanistan partnering India.
However, the Pakistan factor makes it difficult. The recent India-Pakistan tensions over a terror attack in Pulwama, followed by India’s retaliatory aerial strikes and Pakistan’s response, both military and diplomatic, indicate more and frequent trouble in store. That is because whatever the regime in Afghanistan, Pakistan is loath to allow any Indian presence that it sees as a threat to its security, requiring it to fight a two-front war.
Today with Kashmir on the boil, a Taliban regime would be disastrous for India, causing even domestic problems. Conversely, for Pakistan it would mean getting the much-needed strategic depth for which it has been looking.
Iran-Pakistan tensions have also simmered after Iranian Revolutionary Guards were attacked in Sistan, a day before Pulwama. They only underscore the reality that what is being billed as the ‘endgame’ in Afghanistan is getting more complicated by the day.
Prospects of a quick-fix solution through peace negotiations by major powers like the US and Russia has left India in a quandary. New Delhi’s policy of unconditional support to the Afghan government is hitting a roadblock as Kabul itself is being increasingly sidelined. India is no longer invited to conferences where, quietly, Afghanistan’s future is sought to be determined.
To return to the reference of the marriage revellers, would it be an exaggeration to say that Taliban is the bridegroom and Pakistan is playing the bridesmaid? If that is so, the role for India in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future may well be that of, not even a ‘baraati’, but a mere spectator.
(The author is a veteran journalist and foreign affairs analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)